Having waded thigh deep in an unusually fierce torrent of retro sludge for the past couple of weeks (40 odd via PSP arcade compilations, 38 via Wii Virtual Console and another couple on Xbox Live Arcade), it's understandable that I've come away from the experienced slightly scarred. The past is a nice place to visit at this time of the year, but, like a bumbling old relative, you can only spend so much time in its company before wanting to pop your eyes out with a spoon.
But then a game like Heavy Weapon turns up on Live Arcade and reminds you that old fashioned gaming values don't have to be treated like a dotty old nan going on about The Good Old Days in her sleep. Instead, those so-called classic gameplay ingredients can be spiced up and mixed in a way that makes then, in some senses, much more palatable than they ever were in those fabled Days of Old Good.
Rather than tell you that Heavy Weapon is like a preposterously frantic Moon Patrol with that beloved dual-stick Robotron control system strapped to its underbelly, here are five good reasons why Heavy Weapon is my favourite New Old Shooter since Geometry Wars, in no particular order.
- The controls are excellent. The dual stick system is just perfect for this game, with the left stick assigned to movement, and the right for adjusting the 90-degree aiming system. And because you're constantly moving forward, it's all about dodging the incessant bullets and making sure you're in the right place when you're being attacked not only from the air, but from ground targets, too.
- It's brilliantly balanced, and the difficulty curve extremely well-judged. For the first four levels (out of the 19 on offer) you'll be forgiven for thinking that it's all a bit ho-hum - which doesn't bode well for the trial version. But once the challenge cranks up a few notches, it finds a groove all of its own. You start to tinker with the weapon load-out and realise that certain levels are best approached with specific configurations to take advantage of enemy weaknesses.
- It has that incessant One More Go appeal. If Crash magazine was still around it would get 97 per cent for Addictive Qualities. When you've had your arse handed to you on a shiny platter a few times, there's always the sense that it was Your Fault, and not the game being stupidly unfair. And because it's well-balanced, you always reckon you can do better next time, trying out a different approach - maybe seeing whether the flak weapon and rockets work better than having a shield and homing missiles. Beating the later missions is incredibly satisfying as a result - especially when it hangs on using those all-powerful nukes and screen clearing Mega Lasers at just the right time.
- There are no unfair and arcane game mechanics. For example, you don't die the second a bullet grazes your craft. You don't have to start the game from the beginning when you run out of lives. If you get past a level, you start the next one with all three lives intact. If you die, you don't have to start again armed with a peashooter. The levels are long enough to provide a challenge, but short enough not to make it an impossible goal. Even the Really Difficult sections of levels are manageable with the right weapons.
- The visuals are rather lovely. Think a crisp, hi-def Metal Slug approach crossed with Worms, complete with exaggerated explosions, detailed craft, good use of colour and yet nothing too flash that it overwhelms the game. It's what the 2D games of the past were trying to do, but didn't have the resolution or colour palette to pull off. It makes you want more of it.
And, if those weren't good enough reasons to like Heavy Weapon, it also won us over for being really good value. For 800 points, it's a game that more than justifies its price tag for the mission mode alone. The other Survival-based modes (War Party and Arms Race) feel comparatively throwaway played alone, but in multiplayer (off or online for up to four players) it's a decent amount of blasting fun for a few minutes. The main difference between the two Survival modes is that War Party lets you respawn as long as someone else is still alive, while Arms Race grants you three lives only - the winner being the one with the best score. It's not nearly as compelling as the missions, but with the leaderboard scores to compete on, it's a worthwhile addition to an already solid package. As an added bonus, completion of the game also adds Boss Rush mode, so you can face-off against all 19 of them in order, but getting that far will be a real effort for mere mortals.
At a push, you could moan about how easy some of the boss monsters are, and dismiss it as a pretty repetitive experience, but there's a lot to love about Heavy Weapon. It might not appear as hardcore as something like Geometry Wars, but some of the later levels might change your mind - and if you prefer the endless wave approach of GW, then survival mode does the job there too.
So, as much as you might not be thrilled about the prospect of a 2D scrolling tank shooter, Heavy Weapon is far better than it initially appears to be. As an example of how to bring the past up to date, it's one of the best examples on Live to date and definitely one to check out in the shivering January wasteland.
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